Another Kind of Champion


It looked like I was out of the race for first place. Then I found another way to win—a very satisfying way.

When I was 11 years old, I won my first state cross-country title and vowed to become a national champion before I graduated from high school. Full of boldness and determined to conquer mediocrity, I stormed the gates of excellence as I began a routine that was to last for years. Every day I ran from three to ten miles. I loved training. Neither mud, rain, sweat, nor pain were to deter me from my goal. “You only get out of it what you put into it” became my motto. I even learned to like healthy foods.

By the time I was 14, things could not have been going better. I was undefeated in the 1,500-meter run and praised by our local newspaper as the fastest freshman in the state of Oregon. I felt good and knew I was ready.

Three teammates and I had been invited to participate in the prestigious Meet of Champions in Portland. Full of confident chatter, we piled into the team van with our coach on our way to the meet.

As we pulled onto the highway, I noticed how congested the traffic was and subconsciously decided to fasten my seat belt. Everyone began joking about the seat belt law. In the midst of the teasing, I casually looked up and noticed a car flying over the top of a hill approximately 200 yards ahead of us. Completely out of control, it was coming directly toward us in our lane. It began swerving back and forth between the borrow pit and the road, barely avoiding several cars ahead of us. Crippled by a sense of sickening helplessness, the occupants of our van were seized by an ominous silence as we focused on the inescapable disaster that surely would occur.

I awoke to the sounds of screaming sirens, two-way radio lingo, and shouting policemen. We had been hit head-on by a wanted man in a stolen car who was being pursued by a policeman. My teammate and good friend, Lenny, who was in the seat behind me without his seat belt buckled, had been thrown across my seat. I had been propelled forward and pinned under the weight of his unconscious body and my doubled-up seat.

I managed to move just enough to see out of the window. A dozen policemen dotted the hillside and roadway. The other car looked like a crumpled piece of paper. Two ambulances whirled in beside our crushed van, and I was very carefully extracted from the totaled vehicle. “I think this one has a broken back!” I heard one medic say as he looked at me with pity and concern.

It turned out my back wasn’t broken—just my nose. However, serious back strain, several pulled muscles and joint displacement prevented me from walking for a few days and kept me from running normally for several months. This had not been in my plan. I became discouraged as my timetable for being in top form for nationals was once again interrupted.

After regaining my strength I began to work out. But as I watched my ten-year-old brother, Tyler, run, I began to feel more frustration and irritation. He ran strong and smooth strides, like I used to. He could keep up with several of the high school runners and was getting better every week. Even though I loved him, I resented how easy it all seemed for him, and how the luck that had thwarted my progress favored him.

I watched Tyler take state, defeating his nearest competition by 500 meters. A horde of excited fans swarmed around him as I stood back. In spite of myself, an uncanny sense of pride swelled inside of me, and as Tyler’s blue eyes shot past all the well-wishers, seeking my approval, the warmth was so intense that I felt we were the only two in the noisy stadium. His need for my approval drew from me a depth of response that shredded my resentment. At that moment, I vowed that my little brother would go to nationals equipped with all I knew and the might of my support.

We ran together after that. I talked about form and strategy, how to pass and maintain a lead. We ran up hills to build his endurance, sprinted on the track to build his speed, and made up all sorts of drills to improve his reflexes, surges, and kick. We talked racing whenever we could. We ran in pouring rain and sweltering heat.

Tyler and I both took first in the Northwest Regional Championships that qualified us for the national meet in North Carolina. Because of the break in my training caused by the accident, I realistically hoped to place in the top 25. I achieved that by taking 21st out of 300 runners. I reached my goal and earned all-American status.

Satisfied and happy with my performance, I then turned my attention to Tyler. As we sought out his place among the other 265 runners on the starting line, I felt as nervous as when I had lined up for my own race. Tyler was tense, and I could sense his apprehension as if it was my own. How I wished I could transform his pain to joy.

“Be tough, Ty. Just remember, no one is better than you. No one can take The Kid,” I said. My arm slipped around his slumping shoulder, and I felt like I was deserting a desperate man when I walked away and noticed the tears in his eyes.

I watched him run a flawless race as I sprinted from place to place on the course cheering him on and hoping he could feel my support. Could he hear me above the crowd? Could he sense how I was pulling for him to find the strength? He came out of the trees in second place. “Stay on his shoulder, Ty!” I screeched. “Use your arms! Breathe deep!”

He was turning the corner for the last 100 meters we had run over and over together. It was a moment we had planned. “Pull, Tyler! Give it all you’ve got! Come on!” I pleaded. My voice choked as I thrilled at the sight of my little brother, a picture of perfect health striding down the homestretch to a spectacular finish as the national champion I had planned to be.

My pride in him told me I had won something too. Shaken and jubilant, I was consumed by a riot of emotions. I had given myself away and felt something far richer and more powerful than I could have ever imagined. Breathless and filled with fatigue, Tyler again sought my eyes over the crowd. As he came to my side, he gasped out the words which taught me the lesson of my life.

“Jason, I felt terrible—but I could hear you cheering the whole way. I knew I could win. I knew I had to win!”

What other lessons would this little champ learn from me—good or bad?

What about all our other brothers and sisters in the family of men? What messages do they hear above the crowd? Just as Tyler could hear and respond to that call to win, how many others need that voice in the crowd? How often do we get caught up in our own plans and fail to call out our encouragement, fail to cheer others on to victory?

When our arms found each other’s shoulders, I truly knew the meaning of the words, “He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him” (1 Jn. 2:10).

[photos] Photography by John Luke